Review: ‘Providence’ is a compelling, unique mystery-love story
Simultaneously making readers want to revel in the narrative as long as possible while also powering on to the end of the tangled story, “Providence,” by Caroline Kepnes is a novel about love and obsession, full of gripping emotional detail and a compelling New England narrative backdrop.
The thriller begins in small-town New Hampshire, the day of Jon Bronson’s kidnapping. As he walks the long way to school to avoid bullies, mentally analyzing his relationship with Chloe Sayers and thinking about their shared, secret hang-out spot, Jon is abducted in the woods by an old substitute teacher.
Taken while daydreaming about his one friend, he never gets the chance to sort out the complicated, socially-challenged and possibly one-sided but also potentially reciprocated love story with Chloe that is quintessentially middle school.
Kepnes flips between the two kids’ perspectives, so in Jon’s absence, Kepnes fills the time with Chloe’s thoughts. Chloe, who herself was trying to navigate both the tricky balance between spending time with her popular friends and Jon while also attempting to sort out her exact feelings for her secret friend, is forced to tackle the challenge of moving on.
Fast forward to four years later, weeks before graduation, Jon wakes up a changed person. With no memory of the time his peers spent in high school, he emerges from the basement of the local mall transformed from a dorky newspaper-reading and hamster-obsessed pre-teen into a buff, mysterious and, he soon realizes, dangerous man.
Jon has no idea what occurred in the last 1,460 days of his life, the only clue is a copy of “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft with a cryptic handwritten note from his captor, in which he becomes deeply engrossed.
Immediately, he goes to find Chloe. But since no time has passed in his world in four years, the feelings between the two main characters are now prominent only in Jon. Chloe was forced to live her life thinking he would never return. She then becomes stuck between two worlds with his reappearance, pulled by Jon in one direction and in the other by what the rest of the people in her life see as reality.
The dual perspectives effectively give the reader insights into the complicated web of Jon and Chloe’s relationship and simultaneously makes anyone who can see the inner thoughts of each want to scream the answers at the pair.
Soon enough, elevating the mystery, Jon disappears again, although willingly this time after he finds life in his old town after the extensive absence too difficult to sustain. It is increasingly clear that he has dark powers, the extent of which is unknown to him and that he cannot reveal to anyone without threat of ridicule or further exile. His only clue lies in the Lovecraft short story focused on a monstrous man who let the evil inside him take over and eventually destroys the town around him. Jon become manic, fascinated with his inner dark power and attempts to reconcile with the good in him that wishes to restore his relationship with Chloe.
“Basement boy,” the nickname the press gave Jon when he emerged from the mall, moves to Providence, Rhode Island, looking for a fresh start, anonymity and a chance to rid himself of the dangerous abilities rooted inside him.
Around this point, Kepnes begins to intensify another part of the plot: the story of detective Charles “Eggs” DeBenedictus, based in Providence and attempting to solve the suspiciously sudden cardiac arrest-induced deaths of seemingly unconnected individuals, but which he believes are somehow related.
A local with a tragic backstory of his own, Eggs wildly chases the culprit, eventually tracking Jon. Although every officer and loved one tells him to stop chasing, Eggs’s determination to crack the case is another thread in the compulsive plot stringing the reader along, keeping interest piqued.
The detective also provides another view on the loneliness and longing Jon sustains for Chloe and gives an outsider’s look of the relationship between the two childhood friends, straining against the circumstances determined to keep them apart.
Chloe, at this point, confused by Jon’s departure, is unable to move on past him, as the reignition of their relationship confirmed the feelings she speculated at years before.
The three main characters are constantly being pulled in a million directions, and must pit what many of the supporting characters deem as the real world against their hunches and feelings. This is what keeps the mystery alive. Whenever despair sets in, Kepnes deepens the intensity and ploughs ahead.
Although Chloe may seem passive, the actions she takes in her life are nothing but. Since she does not know the dark power Jon is grappling with, she is forced to rationalize his motives for ostensibly abandoning her. All the while she is trying to launch her art career, which began when drawing sketches of Jon for news outlets after his initial disappearance and integrate herself into a world that can actually reciprocate her interest.
On the other hand, though Jon may appear cruel for not informing Chloe of his whereabouts or letting her in on his struggles, he suffered greatly under the weight of the decision he made. He illustrates that protecting a loved one and making them happy is not always synonymous, and often a choice must be made.
Constantly one step back from the main relationship between the protagonists, Eggs’ actions reminded me of the importance of one’s instincts, yet also allowed me to critically look at how obsession can too fully takeover.
The best part of the story is that it keeps going; whereas a movie or another novel would end and leave the wrap-up and messy aftermath to the viewer or readers’ imaginations, Kepnes delves deeper. “Providence” is the fast-paced, mystery-love story perfect to indulge in while surrounded by the increasingly cold weather in a classic New England town. It pulled me into the present of this story; Kepnes deftly drew me into the web of the tale she spins and pushed me to reflect on the parallels of the deeper meanings and conceptual ideas of knowing and sharing in the book and my own life.